WHY ARE THERE specialized insurance brokers for motorcycles? I learned one answer in the flat backseat of the family station wagon when I was five. We had stopped on the shoulder of a road behind a trailer whose wheels straddled a ditch. Nearby, a motorcycle on its side revved feebly, the top wheel circling aimlessly like the legs of a bug flipped on its back. My father, a doctor, rushed over and came back as fast. “He’s already dead,” he announced as his door slammed shut. I stared at the back of my mother’s bouffant hair, waiting for her to turn her face to me and say something comforting.
Life’s a blind curve, and the crash inevitable. Which is why most of us can’t help expecting the shriek of tires and the tinkle of splintering glass. Rachel Kushner’s brilliant essay collection The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020 offers many insights — elegies bracing and tender, maps to the conceptual geometries where art meets commerce, and lapidary homages to writers whose gifts have informed her thinking — Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Marguerite Duras, Nanni Balestrini, and Clarice Lispector.
The pieces in this volume are united in approaching the weirdest condition of our collective experience: that we resort to consciousness to probe both consciousness and its end. Many of us defuse the tension this problem creates by backpedaling away from potential hazards. The characters that people The Hard Crowd mostly hurtle toward their finish. For Kushner, motorcycles, ships, cars, and trucks are simultaneously vehicle and tenor. These conveyances floodlight the ways we scrap and desire as we move toward the place where “the pictures stop,” as a 96-year-old friend of mine once wheezed in a delighted voice that heart failure had turned to gravel.
Pictures in this collection remain afterimages the mind’s eye cannot easily blink away: a faulty motorcycle engine “covered in orange sealant goop,” a boyfriend fileted for telling tedious stories (“there were always rancid meals, needy women, nonsensical rules, and jealous, less capable men thwarting him”), Ezra Pound in cameo discharging on visitors a “champagne flow of bigoted spew.”
Death slips in and out of each essay like Hitchcock’s face in his movies. In “Girl on a Motorcycle,” which opens this collection and acts as an overture, a racer clad in “black race leathers with the white bones of a skeleton stitched over them” signals our collective terminus. Sean Crane is a walk-on as vividly realized as his namesake, Ichabod, and as awe-inspiring (despite his haplessness), as if he were flapping high on the rigging of a pirate ship. Somewhere on the road between Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas, Crane out-brakes a fellow rider “on a blind curve overlooking a cliff.” The rider careens over the edge and is airlifted to a hospital, where he loses his leg. Crane, meanwhile, “kept going.”
In “The Sinking of the HMS Bounty,” an essay that moves seamlessly from the signifier to the real to memory to how we grasp and claw after “what is objective and definite,” Kushner speaks an aside that only a careless reader would see as a non sequitur: “I am not afraid of dying. […] What I fear is to be dead.”
Death is definite. In “Bounty,” the end sounds like “[f]eminine screams, and the breaking of glass.” In “Flying Cars,” a tone poem as moody as an Edward Hopper painting, twilight is Death’s moniker, the time when we start to notice the “casual grace” cast by the shine of traffic signals. Light remains the same in its constant flux. We, the sentient freight that cars carry, harbor dreams and are eventually destroyed.
Kushner likes to give fate side-eye even as she examines it. The persona she cultivates usually speaks with a cerebral breeziness part swagger and part deadpan. It’s worth distinguishing between this quality of voice and the writer who orchestrates its inflections, however. The “I” is witness as much as participant in this collection, and memoir not so much endpoint as starting gun for discussions far rangier. It would be reductive to weld together the speakers of diverse essays to further a biographical simulacrum: Kushner the child of beatnik parents; Kushner on the book’s cover posed against the trunk of a classic car. These essays are more committed to investigating the choices people make within their circumscribed locales than to lingering over the self writ small.
“Girl on a Motorcycle” is a case in point. Readers of The Flamethrowers will appreciate the essay for the way it returns them to the novel’s ground. But “Girl on a Motorcycle” weaves together many of the overriding concerns Kushner has long made her bailiwick. There are reflections on care and apathy, equally inexplicable in their sudden appearance. And there are manifold explorations, sharply focused and etched in acid, of what it is to be a person who is a worker and what it is to be a person who is a woman: two “classes” eclipsed by their toil in service and the machines that sometimes mangle them.
Across these essays, Kushner gives us indestructible characters — people who are just themselves — as she simultaneously prompts readers to consider “what life was like for a person such as them.” Kushner herself asks and answers the same question. How do people respond to their environment? We are not in the world of vases under museum glass here but in clubs and piazzas and streets, where people are framed amid concrete or furniture coated with the thin grime of constant use.
Kushner’s way of seeing is not unlike that of Wanda Coleman, the Los Angeles–based writer whose territory abutted Kushner’s own. Like in The Hard Crowd, the people ushered under one roof in Native in a Strange Land understand, Coleman writes, that “[t]he past was a rumor, the present a trial, and the future an improbability. All was transitory, of the minute.”
There is the same sense of the quick as well as the dead in Kushner. Like her thinking, her prose is nimble. She corners fast. Anna is “less guinea pig than ghost” and dignified, paradoxically, by the intransigence that she summons and that makes her prominent as “a weather vane: a dark and anticipatory figure of the movement about to crest.” Pumpkin, a character in H. B. Halicki’s 1974 movie Gone in 60 Seconds, eventually becomes a real estate agent in Rancho Palos Verdes, Kushner tells us, but not before situating this figure behind the desk of a Cadillac dealership. With her “big amazing hair” and “long nails,” she is as bright and cipherlike as Daisy Buchanan: “The studs on the collar of her denim shirt wink at the camera, her Malibu-tan hands tented in rumination, although maybe she’s thinking only of money, or of nothing at all.”
In a couple of essays, Kushner files the edge off her voice. She exchanges its sharpness in “Is Prison Necessary?” for more direct explanation and argument. And she rubs away some of its élan in the closing essay, which, in assembling ghosts of the past in one place, does not shimmer with the same energy as the volume as a whole. Still, in an essay collection by another writer, these pieces would be standouts. Here, they are exceptions that prove the rule, which is that it doesn’t matter what the author’s eye rests upon or where she turns her ear — her laser-like intelligence makes objects as distinct as Jeff Koons’s sculptures and the face of Debbie Harry on the cover of a Blondie record catch and burn with the swoosh of a flare.
Few writers, after all, can offer us as complicated a perspective on the “feminine agency” that rolls off the tongue (earnestly for some and carelessly for others) in the figures of Anna and Clarice Lispector bookended in back-to-back essays that provide us two views — convex mirrors on the succession of angles that are our itineraries. “Woman in Revolt” and “Lipstick Traces” are not as far apart as we might think. In each, gender is a yoke that must be slipped. Anna, a rebellious teenager, is a significant and profound presence, baring her teeth, however smilingly, in the face of the filmic voyeurism that renders woman as soft, smashable object. Lispector produces work that faces the void with a clarity that does not limit existence but positions it as a “numinous” thing. “Lipstick Traces” closes the book upon Lispector with a hymn that does not divorce intellect from the feelings that bind. Each of these women, in Kushner’s hands, dispenses with conventional narrative with the same ease they might take in cutting their nails.
Kushner is often compared to Joan Didion, perhaps because both see beyond the veils people trick themselves out in. Didion is a literary coroner whose scalpel-like sentences peel away the effluvia and organs of yearning to locate the hard structures underneath. If she were to write an essay on motorcycle racing, she might occupy the perspective of the drone hovering above a freeway, where the motorcyclist sandwiched between the carapaces of cars and trucks seems an ant without armor. Kushner keeps us closer to the ground. In her work, want is not so much something to be cauterized as to be explored. Her essays parse this condition in two ways: as desire and as deprivation.
The young man in the title essay who hustles in San Francisco is also a sign of the times. His blankness is not a mask. It is a turning away from masks because he is “obviously so wounded that he had to void himself by any means he could.” The sentence pours over the reader like cold water. But it is elegy rather than post-mortem. Here as elsewhere in this collection, the end of things is not a marble monument but a chariot hurrying near.